Neil Young's latest turn behind the camera is completely free of name-actors, pretentiousness and, to the delight of fans of Young's music, dialog. It's also mostly free of appearances by Young, unlike director Jim Jarmusch's 1997 Young biopic, Year of the Horse, in which Young's presence, along with that of Crazy Horse members Frank “Pancho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, serves only to make the viewer uncomfortable for inexplicable reasons. In Greendale, Young and his Crazy Horse cohorts tell the tale of the Green family off-camera in song—10 of them, some clocking in at the signature Crazy Horse minute mark of a dozen or more—while actors mime the story, occasionally lip synching to Young's third-person lyrics. As a movie experience, it's bizarre, yet fully engaging, like a silent film with a soundtrack instead of subtitles.
Shot by Young himself entirely on Super-8, Greendale has that slightly disconcerting home-movie look, and filmgoers are never patently certain whether the events are taking place in the not-so-distant past, the present, or in some kind of incredibly lucid dream we're privy to courtesy of Young's incredibly broad vision and the camera he probably got for Christmas a couple of years ago. According to Young, the songs were written individually, coming together in story—and later, script—form only after the Greendale album was finished. Once the idea for the movie came about, the approach was decidedly straightforward. Young simply ran around northern California for three weeks with a camera, directing and filming his actors as the record spins.
Ultimately, the whole affair isn't as haphazard as it sounds. The resulting film is pure cinematic ecstasy for Neil Young fans, and it represents a breathtaking departure in indie filmmaking that should intrigue even movie lovers who can't stand Young's music. Greendale is part family saga, part political protest, and part social commentary on the sad state of current corporate America and a whole lot of spontaneous creative combustion, distorted guitars, feedback and a plodding rhythm section. What's not to love? What begins as a film that boggles the movie-processing part of the brain ends as a sweet testament to the strength of family and community that's as simple to digest as the fables and tales we all grow up on.